Elizabeth Marami is Kenya’s first female marine pilot. She is only 27 years old. That still doesn’t impress you enough?
How about this, then: Women in the maritime industry account for only one or two per cent of the world’s 1.25 million seafarers, according to the International Labour Organisation. Elizabeth is one of them.
She goes to the deep sea for 18 months at a go, often being the only woman on board container ships that only have men.
She scored A plain in KCSE exams and was awarded a scholarship to study law at the University of Nairobi, but she found such academic pursuits too ordinary. So she adjusted her mast and drifted off to Egypt to study navigation for five years.
We met at my office. She’s a petite ball of dynamite; super smart, confident, eloquent, funny and with a wonderful raspy voice. A sea-whisperer’s voice.
Before we even get into it, allow me to say that you are phenomenal.
Thank you! (Laughs).
First female marine pilot, did the folks at Kenya Maritime Authority at least cut a cake in your honour?
No! (Laughs). I actually, didn’t even know that I had pioneered. I didn’t know! It was only halfway through my course that someone was like, “Do you know you’re the first to do this?” That’s when I was going to get my licence to go to sea. That was big, Kenya Ports Authority has about 7,000 personnel.
I’m ignorant at what you do, tell me exactly what a marine pilot does.
What happens is when vessels come into Kenyan territorial waters, they’re not supposed to navigate to the harbour on their own. It’s a law. So, a Kenyan pilot goes out in small boat about 10 kilometres out into sea to meet these vessels and helps navigate them.
So once you have climbed into this visiting boat, what do you do?
I take command.
“I take command.” I really like that.
(Laughs hard) They’ll be expecting me because I will have been in constant communication. Once on board I will tell the captain, “Welcome to the port of Mombasa, I’m the pilot you’ve been waiting for and I’ll be navigating you through the channel” then you start giving orders to the helmsman.
Have you ever gotten into a ship and the crew were like, “Whoa, slow down, this small girl will lead us to shore?!”
Very many times. We have senior pilots who usually tell me, “When you go up there you have to speak with a commanding voice for them to feel that you know what you’re doing.” I’ve had times when I’ve given an order then I realise the ship is going in a different direction and then I would nudge the senior pilot like, “What’s happening?” Then the senior pilot says, “The captain is overriding your order, so stand firm and tell him not to.”
How do you handle something like that, when they override your command?
I don’t have a commanding voice. Actually, I’ve been told to work on that. I just ask, “Why are you steering off my orders?”
So your size and your gender doesn’t work for you sometimes, I assume?
It’s not in my favour. At all.
Does that knock the wind off your sail?
(Chuckles). Nice one. Yes, but you somehow get used to it because first of all you have to accept it. If you don’t, you’ll be upset almost every single day. So I learnt that there are those ships I’ll walk in and the captain will be happy to see me. Like, “Congratulations, We don’t have females in our country. That’s good.” Then those that won’t be happy to see me.
Describe these men who you stay with in the sea for months.
(Pause) They are quite interesting. You see to rise in every rank you have to spend months at sea and it was quite an intriguing experience for me because, you’re confined in this space with these men and no matter what happens, there is no where you can go. So you have to be very strategic on how you’re going to survive with them. What I learnt over the months is that men will always respect you if you respect yourself first. Secondly, they are really quick to protect once they perceive you as family.
Would you date a sailor?
It’s a personal decision.
Based on what?
On the fact that we cannot be two sailors in the same house.
You know what I mean!
Why did you decide to do this? You could have been a farmer, a lawyer.
I don’t want to sound like I’m insulting other jobs when I say I didn’t want to do the cliché jobs of being a doctor or lawyer or whatever. I was awarded a scholarship to study law, but I decided to defer my law degree and go study navigation because it sounded different and I have always thought I am different. I’m the girl who was always blubbering that I wanted to be the first female president.
But you know, coming from my family where my mum is a school principal and my dad is a doctor, professional courses were what they wanted. So, when I got an A, I had to decide what professional course I wanted.
Where did you grow up?
Born and bred in Mombasa. I actually only left Mombasa when I went to Egypt. I hated swimming, by the way. We used to have swimming clubs, my sisters happen to be very good swimmers — professional swimmers. I’m a good swimmer, but I got to a stage when I was in Standard 4 and I was like, “No, I can’t do this” So I’m not the kind of person who’d say, “It’s so sunny. I’m going for a swim.”
What kind of training did you go through?
The training is basically a certification. Countries do not govern the certifications, they’re governed by the UN body IMO (International Maritime Organisation). So they have this syllabus or rather this path you have to choose.
To become a full captain—depending on the school you go to— you have to do classwork and then you have to do 18 months at sea. Then more classwork and then you sit for your licence.
So you start as a deck cadet then junior cadet. I did the degree programme and I got to second officer level. Then more training with Kenya Ports Authority. Local training means now I’m being taught to navigate in the channel because it’s different navigating in the high seas. I have shortened the course, but it’s very extensive.
How many male marine pilots do we have in Kenya now?
For how long can you hold your breath under water?
Wow. I don’t know. I haven’t tried it. (Pause) I absolutely cannot tell. Why would you ask that question?
Well, maybe you know, I don’t know, your ship goes under and you have to hold your breath.
I knew that was the question. We are trained on-board to handle certain emergencies. Chances of you dying will be because of you jumping overboard and you’ll probably die of hypothermia.
Is the sea a woman or man?
The sea is a woman. (Laughs) I say so because the sea can be quiet and then an emotional roller-coaster and I think women tend to be that. It’s beautiful and fragile and it can be the most destructive thing. The sea is firesome.
And sometimes the sea sulks, I suppose?
Oh, absolutely! And ships are also a she, ships are women.
Are you planning on addressing the disparity in gender balance in your industry as a pioneer?
Oh yes. You know women are perceived as a liability in our industry. A ship owner wants the money at the end of the day not sexual harassment lawsuits.
Unfortunately, I feel like IMO is shying away from discussing the elephant in the room because people who sit there vote policies first, so not necessarily gender, and a majority are men. That’s why I felt I could be the voice. I am working on a project called ‘Against the Tide’, which I hope to launch by end of this month. This is a platform where women can share their stories without shame; cases of women being fired for being pregnant.
Basically my end game is to help equality when it comes to seafaring and I hope I can be able to achieve that. And if I don’t, I’ll die trying.
Do you imagine that you’ll die at sea?
No, but I think my mother imagines it for me all the time.(Laughs) She thinks it’s quite dangerous, but my parents have always supported me. They are very cool parents.
Where do you think the presence of God is most felt, at sea or on land?
It can be felt anywhere. Even in this room. It just depends on your personal faith and relationship with God.
So you have you ever been at sea and something happened and you said, “My goodness, God, I know that’s you! You can’t fool me!”
(Laughs) No, but I have felt God in my room.